Gathering Arbutus

17-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today:

Sunday, April 28, 1912: Went to Sunday School this morning. Jimmie went along. Carrie and I went for arbutus and wound up by taking a walk. Went to church this evening. Sported my new hat.

Trailing Arbutus (Mayflower)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Yeah, Grandma had an opportunity to wear her stylish new hat!

Carrie referred to her friend Carrie Stout, and Jimmie was her 6-year-old brother.

Trailing arbutus is a small white flower. A hundred years ago picking trailing arbutus apparently was a popular springtime activity.

I even noticed a short article about arbutus when I was recently looking through microfilms of the local newspaper. The April 8, 1912 issue of the Milton Evening Standard had the following article:

Arbutus must have a relatively long blooming season, since they still were in bloom on the 28th.

In 1911, Grandma also mentioned picking trailing arbutus—that time with her two sisters:

Besse was out this afternoon. We three kids went for arbutus and I got some this time. . .

Diary entry, April 15, 1911

15 Responses

  1. So enjoyed over viewing your blog. You’ve given me ideas for similar publications of my own, only with translated German newspaper articles about southeast Nebraska. Thank you for your nice comment and interest. I look forward to your daily posts.
    Cheryl (corinthrose…also known as nebrrose1)

    • I love your idea about posting translated German newspaper articles. There are so many historic resources that are inaccessible because people can’t read the language. In Pennsylvania, like Nebraska, German was spoken by many in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I know that in another branch of my family (not the one the diary is from) that German was spoken in the home until World War I. At that time, I think that people were considered to be possible traitors if they spoke German, so the family quit using the language.

  2. I wonder if they collected the arbutus to put in vases for the house… I’m so glad Helena finally got a chance to wear her new hat!

    • I have a vague memory of a couple old, very small vases that were stored at the very back of a shelf when I was a child. Now I’m thinking that maybe those types of vases had once been used to display small flowers like arbutus.

    • I am not being judgemental, but we are fortunate to have any trailing arbutus left in New England and the middle states. People used to gather it by the huge handfuls to put in vases. As recently as 1975, I saw an immense bouquet in a rural Aroostook Co. Maine general store on the counter. The fact is: trailing arbutus, Epigaea repens, is becoming more and more rare. That is because no one should be picking it. It is called trailing arbutus for a good reason. It grows on great long running stems that are very tough. If someone goes to “pick” a mayflower, instead it uproots long stems. These stems have side stems with a few flowers off each stem. It does irreparable damage to a plant to pick it, as it uproots so many stems the plant cannot recover. The plant is listed as endangered in some states, and in other states it is listed as “vulnerable to extinction”. All in all, now that we know that over-harvesting of many plants can lead to extinction, which folks in 1912 did not realize, it is best to lie down and smell the incredibly sweet essence of the trailing arbutus, but leave the flower and its stems right where they are. I am enjoying reading the diary entries from 100 years ago. thank you for sharing your grandmother’s diary.

      • Thank you for the very useful information about trailing arbutus. I know that I seldom see any arbutus, but hadn’t realized how rare it has become. After reading your comment, I did a Google search and discovered that according to the Garden Club Federation of Pennsylvania trailing arbutus is an endangered species in Pennsylvania.

        http://www.pagardenclubs.org/clubinformationa.html

  3. I remember doing this as a child in central Wisconsin – looking for any of the early spring wildflowers was a big event. In 5th grade I did a school assignment on gathering wildflowers, drawing each one I found and writing about it. I wonder what happened to that little booklet I made?

  4. Thank you so much for the remarks about preserving the German language among descendants. My mother’s father was sent out of Germany as a young man by his mother to avoid being drafted into “the Kaiser’s army.” He spent both World Wars in America, and saw his family only once again in his lifetime between the wars. After the second war, his family fell behind the Iron Curtain. He never taught my mother or her sisters a word of German. I think that is a shame, but I understand times were different, and prejudices were strong.

    • Times were so different back then. I also picture that in my family that there was little (or perhaps no) communication with relatives back in Germany.

  5. [...] The flowers grow in clusters tucked beneath the leaves.  They are creamy white, and are in the form of a short tube ending in five flaring lobes.  They bloom mid-April to mid-May.  The flowers along our woods have just completed their blooming. For a nostalgic look at the tradition of picking Mayflowers in spring, have a look at http://ahundredyearsago.com/2012/04/28/gathering-arbutus/ [...]

    • For this favorite wildflower with an exquisite fragrance, one must search among the fallen leaves in early spring. It favors exposed sites where the plants are not smothered by leaf litter. It appears to be sensitive to abrupt environmental disturbances, such as lumbering and grazing, which may account for its present scarcity. It is difficult to cultivate. Trailing Arbutus is sometimes referred to as Plymouth Mayflower in reference to the fact that it was the first flower to cheer the hearts of the Pilgrim Fathers after the rigors of their first New England winter. (Strickland)

      http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=EPRE2

      copied from the URL above, a native database of plants in Texas

      • Thanks for the interesting information. It’s hard to imagine how the flower covered entire hillsides a hundred years ago–but is very rare now. . I’m going to really look for trailing arbutus–and if I find it I will bend down, smell them, and really savor the experience.

  6. […] arbutus are also called mayflowers. Several years ago when Grandma wrote about gathering trailing arbutus, I found a description at The Write Way about what it was like to pick them. It’s still the best […]

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